Celia Cruz Fans to Gather For Cemetery Concert Near Her Place Of Rest

David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Celia Cruz performing in 1980. 

Thousands are expected to visit the mausoleum where the Cuban singer lies beside her husband Pedro Knight to mark the 15-year anniversary of her death.

When Celia Cruz died fifteen years ago this year, she was laid to rest in a white marble mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery in NYC's The Bronx. Marking the occasion, the renowned Cuban singer’s fans will be able to go inside the white marble crypt this week to pay respects to Cruz and her husband, Pedro Knight.   

An exhibition of some of Cruz’s stage outfits, personal effects and photos furnished by the artist’s estate will be on view at the cemetery chapel Thursday (Sept. 27) through Sunday (Sept. 30), when a set of her well-known songs will be performed during an outdoor afternoon concert within earshot of Cruz’s grave.   

   

“We are going to make the spirits dance,” says Aurora Flores, whose band Aurora & Zon del Barrio will perform signature songs from throughout Cruz’s career at the concert on Sunday. “It’s a once in a lifetime gig.”   

The band will feature timbale player and percussionist Nicky Marrero, an original member of the Fania All-Stars, with whom Cruz rose to international fame as salsa spread beyond its native New York in the 1970s.

“What better way to commemorate someone’s life than to do this at the place where she is buried and memorialized?" Woodlawn executive director David Ison tells Billboard. He explains that the public is not usually allowed to enter the mausoleum, which resembles a small house accessed by a walkway and surrounded by a cheerful private garden. Five years after her death, Cruz was joined there by Knight, who died in 2007.

Ison is expecting thousands of people to come to the cemetery in tribute to Cruz this week. A trolley will take visitors from the exhibit to the grave site. Tickets for the Sunday afternoon concert have already run out, with 3,500 people signed up to attend the Sunday concert. Reservations can still be made to view the exhibition -- the largest exhibit of Celia Cruz memorabilia ever seen in New York -- and visit the mausoleum Thursday through Saturday, free of charge, by registering on the cemetery’s web site.

“This is really celebrating her legacy,” says Ison, who notes that while Cruz passed away in July 2003, the event is being held in September to coincide with Hispanic Heritage month. “Celia’s music and entertainment transformed many lives. Many people saw her perform, and to come out here, it’s a small way that they can remember those good times. Someone who is 60 or 70 years old now can take their children or grandchildren and share their stories. It’s a way to connect.”

“Our Latino heritage is generational,” echoes Flores. “It’s about younger people being with older people. We need that...we live in a society that’s very youth-oriented. When you get older they want to put you to the side. Celia proved it doesn’t have to be like that. Right up until her death (at age 77), she was still doing it.”

Cruz and Knight first had planned to be buried at St. Raymond’s cemetery, which is also in The Bronx. “They had property there to be close to some performers she had worked with,” says Ison, explaining that near the end of her life, Cruz chose Woodlawn so that her grave would be easily accessible to the public. Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Irving Berlin are among other celebrated musicians buried at Woodlawn, a National Historic Landmark that opened in 1863.

Tens of thousands of people attended Cruz’s wake at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral home in Manhattan. “It had more visitors than Judy Garland,” Ison remarks. Before arriving at Woodlawn, the Cuban singer’s coffin rode in a horse-drawn carriage down Fifth Avenue for her funeral mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Flores, both a musician and music journalist who wrote about New York’s Latin music scene for Latin NY magazine and for Billboard in the 1970s, interviewed Cruz in the early days of salsa and remained a friend of the artist until the end of her life. She says the band will perform songs from the beginning of her career in Cuba with La Sonora Matancera, Fania classics like “Quimbara” and “Cucala” and her late career hits, “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” and “La Vida Es Un Carnaval.” The two-hour show will end with “Guantanamera.”

“Celia Cruz to me is a great role model,” Flores says. “Here is a black woman who left Cuba and became world-renowned.”

Her final resting place, Flores adds, is in itself a testament to her accomplishments.

“Woodlawn Cemetery is prime real estate,” Flores notes. “When you go there, you are buying a piece of property. Celia’s is like a mansion. It is prime property owned by a black Latina who did not speak a lick of English. That, to me, is making it.“

Hispanic Heritage Month